The name of this band does not do it any favors. This is one of the most unfortunate traits of punk rock – naming their band the most shockworthy thing that they can. Being inside of a community that is still coming to terms with the loss of a friend to suicide, the name of this group raised a flag for me. This is part of the reason that I decided to take this one on alone.
Shock aside though, this is such a fascinating album. Suicide was one of the first bands to name themselves “punk” when this album dropped in 1977, and it is such a fascinating take on a genre that, to many modern listeners, already has a certain connotation. Trust me, this does not fit the mold. And it is nothing short of bewitching.
First of all, this whole record is distorted so much that you cannot discern any sort of strong drum track. The beat is waaaay far in the back behind the ultra-distorted guitars, synths and ultra-affected vocals. “Ghost Rider” puts you right inside this desolate world where there’s nothing but space, but that space is almost inside your own head.
What does that mean? I have no idea. This is just way too trippy an album to explain anything.
Did you ever see the movie “White Noise”? Where the dead people can speak to you through the static in your TV or radio? I remember watching it when I was in high school and thinking that it was the dumbest concept for a movie ever. (This was of course by it scaring the holy bejeezus out of this sheltered small town kid). This record feels like the musical realization of that same concept, as though something from beyond is pulling me into the abyss that is communicating with the supernatural. The engineering is done in such a way that that the instruments create this wash of noise with repeated chord progressions and riffs, and the clear voice of frontman Alan Vega cutting through the haze with his words. Take the (ahem) intimate noises that Vega makes during “Girl” overtop of the synth riff and backing drone, or else the description of the ghost rider over top of the drum machine on the first track, pounding away on the barren landscape of my cerebrum.
It’s easy to see where more modern artists might be inspired by music like this. The minimalism that these two gentlemen showed in the late 70’s at the dawn of the larger-than-life rock sound is countercultural and truly punk. It also shows musicians how to do more with less, which, to this musician, seems to be an undertaught skill. Take the sparse sustained chords on “Cheree”, with an understated melody played on the chimes of all things. Suicide is a group that is not content with merely keeping it simple, and yet they manage to do it so well while still pushing and pulling you in all kinds of different emotional directions.
While being able to hold onto elements from the early punk days such as easy chord progressions and riffs to full-steam-ahead drums, Suicide also introduces other neat elements that were certainly not in vogue at the time this was written. Drum machines most certainly were not the norm, but you can really hear how much they add as opposed to a less dynamically-sensitive instrument like the kit on a song like “Johnny”, or even at the beginning of “Girl”. Perhaps the most interesting example was the bathroom track “Frankie Teardrop”, which has a four-on-the-floor 808-esque kick pattern with no snare at all. This track, by far the most vexing on the album, features Alan Vega’s punctuating screams in “Frankie Teardrop”, which tells the story of a murder spree committed at night. The story itself is nothing short of terrifying on its own, but throw in the screams that are engineered to bounce around your head, haunting you for hours on end, and this thing will make you jump right out of your arm chair (this may or may not have happened to me).
Of all the amazing artists we have lost in the past year – Bowie, Prince, Lemmy, and countless others, we also lost Alan Vega. This guy was a true pioneer in the genre, and an incredible musical storyteller. Almost too good in a lot of ways. One thing I would avoid doing is listening to this at night. “Frankie Teardrop” gets especially disturbing and utterly unnerving, and it will make you run for your locks and bolts. Happy almost Halloween…
Check out “Ghost Rider” here:
And, if you dare (and I recommend you dare in the daytime), here’s “Frankie Teardrop”:
Leave a Reply